India. Given some of our previous travels you might think that India would feature highly on our wish list, but in truth it never has. For every person that told us how amazing the Taj Mahal was, another would tell us how unbearable they found the poverty and filth.
But when I was offered the chance to visit northern India for a week, in my capacity as a travel professional, I jumped at the chance.
Any city I have visited in the developing or third world is always one of great contrast. Delhi is no exception. The levels of poverty do not sit comfortably against the grand backdrop of colonialism and the modern world.
I travelled to India with Tom. He too works in travel and the purpose of our trip, aside from having a great time, was to sample the hotels and tours and to get a feel for India as a country.
We started slowly, spending our first day by the pool to recover from the flight. True to form I managed to acquire a lovely pink sun burn in about 5 minutes. Then in the evening we ventured into the city and to Connaught Place, driven by Ashwani, who had the unenviable task of driving us around for a whole week.
Connaught Place is an incredible colonial era area built in a huge circle, with a park in the middle, endless shops and offices and radial roads leading outwards in all directions. It was built in the early 1930s and is a perfect example of what can be achieved when you can go about the business of building without having to worry about what it costs or the opinion of the local residents.
We walked a full lap, ventured bravely into the underground market and then retreated to a coffee shop. Delhi is certainly not the sort of city you can just leap into, so very soon we were back in the car on our way back to the hotel.
I slept terribly on the first night. The time difference is 5 and a half hours from the UK, but that was enough to mean that I got about 4 hours of broken sleep.
Our first full day was a sign of what was to come. We had a very busy itinerary so after an early start we arrived at Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India. Islam accounts for only 14% of the population of India, but in the 17th Century when the Jama Masjid mosque was built India was part of the Mughal Dynasty. As such most of the impressive forts, religious building and tombs within India are Islamic.
Jama Masjid was an impressive start. Built of red sandstone and white marble, the mosque sits high above the city and cuts a striking image. We strolled around for a while taking photos and as I did, I was wondering whether the trip would be blog-worthy. Nothing we have ever done in the past has been as pre-organised as this trip was going to be. There would be no public transport, minimal chances to to get lost and no naff hotels.
No sooner had that thought crossed my mind we found ourselves being bundled into a bicycle rickshaw for a lap of the old town. As we set off, our Indian pilot struggling to haul us up to speed, I considered taking a video of the experience. Then the hellish experience commenced. He dived into a narrow alleyway and the rickshaw was thrown from side to side as it tackled the uneven ground.
At 6 foot and 4 inches tall I often find situations that are not suited to my height. An Indian bicycle rickshaw is one such experience. The roof is made from iron bars. Whilst sat upright my head had no place to go but between two of the bars. As soon as we hit the first pothole my had smacked into one of the iron bars. I saw stars and then the other side of my head struck the other iron bar. I ducked my head to avoid concussion, and on the third pothole my head crashed into one of the side bars.
Any thoughts of enjoying the ride, or videoing the experience, were long gone. I was know rigidly contorting my body into an unnatural shape in an effort to not suffer any more pain, which meant I could barely see what was going on.
Tom, who is not as tall as me, seemed to find it amusing. The rickshaw driver was a lunatic. Despite having no reason to rush he was intent upon overtaking every other vehicle, pedestrian and animal in front of us. The alleyways were no more than 6 feet wide, yet traffic flowed in both directions, with the occasional motorbike thrown in for good measure.
After way too long we returned to the start point and rejoined our tour guide. Our next stop was Raj Ghat, the memorial to Ghandi and the site at which he was cremated.
In a city as hectic as Delhi this was a remarkably peaceful place. With manicured lawns and gardens surrounding the memorial. As we walked towards the memorial I noticed a gardener using a strimmer to cut the grass. He was carefully strimming around a twisted lump of rusting metal, his strimmer occasionally pinging off the metal. I got the impression that the metal had been there for some time, and nobody could be bothered to move it.
After the Ghandi Memorial we made our way to Humayun’s Tomb. Humayun was the 2nd Mughal Emporer and was responsible for large expansion of the empire. As such his tomb is very grand. It was completed in 1572 and was the first major structure in India to be build with red sandstone. Most of the main historic sites in Delhi and beyond were subsequently built using the local red sandstone. As well as looking very striking it is also extremely hard. Much harder than the sandstone of Angkor in Cambodia for example, and the lack of erosion from rain and wind was very noticeable throughout our time in India.
After that we headed for our final site of the day, the Qutub Minar. My typically minimal research had picked this site out before leaving the UK. The Minaret is 73 metres tall, which is all the more impressive because construction began in 1192, with the last level being added 28 years later.
The Minaret was modeled on the Minaret of Jam in modern day Afghanistan. This is a location I would love to visit – look here to see why. The Mughal dynasty stretched far and wide including modern day Afghanistan and Iran. Much of the historic architecture in India is Persian in influence. The Taj Mahal for example was designed by an Iranian.
The Minaret at Qutub is incredible. The detail of the carvings and the texts are impressive, and again the hard red sandstone has endured the weather of 900 years extremely well.
So that was the end of the days touring. It was a great day but doesn’t make for the most interesting of reads. Regular readers will no doubt be wondering when I am going to get myself into an amusing situation….